LEVEL 1: Good for beginners, easy to learn snake-keeping with.

Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata spp)

The Corn Snake is to snakes what the Leopard Gecko is to lizards: a good, hardy captive, ideal for beginners but also kept by more experienced herpetoculturists because of its character. Corn Snakes are normally an orange colour with red saddles on the back, with a white underbelly checked with black. However, at the moment they come in many different variations - amelanistic, melanistic and albino, or "ghost". Being North American in origin, they do not need much in the way of heat and lighting as long as the temperature is at least 75. One thing to beware of is that corn snakes are excellent at escaping, so a secure tank (ie one with a tight lid) is a must.

Brown House Snake (Lamprophis fuliginosus)

This is an African member of the colubrid family and a relation to the North American kingsnakes. At only 2½-3 ft long, in a variety of colours and easily acclimatised to captivity, this may be one of the best pet snakes on the market. Unfortunately we do not seem to see many of them here in the UK, but increasing popularity and captive breeding may change that.

Garter and Ribbon Snakes (genus Thamnophis)

Garter and ribbon snakes are extremely popular and available North American snakes that come in a large variety of colours but which have the following characteristics in common: their scales are heavily keeled, they have a single anal plate and they give birth to live young. Furthermore they are often aquatic, especially ribbon snakes, but in captivity they should be given a dry tank with a bowl of water to rest in should they so wish. Care for both types is similar. Incidentally the San Francisco garter snake is now extremely rare and heavily protected by law.

Garter snakes: the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) comes in a wide variety of subspecies and different morphs. Most are olive green to black, but there is a red-sided garter snake (T. s. parietalis) as well as a melanistic variety, both often found for sale. The common garter normally reaches about 3ft in captivity, although up to 4ft in the wild.

Ribbon snakes: the eastern ribbon snake, T. sirtalis, is also common in pet shops, and occasionally the western ribbon snake T. proximus is also encountered. Ribbon snakes are essentially longer (up to 4ft) and more nervous kindred of garter snakes, usually black with yellow (eastern ribbon) or blue stripes (western ribbon).

Both garter and ribbon snakes are normally cheap, but this is balanced by their requirement for UV lighting. Furthermore most prefer live fish, frogs, earthworms or leeches as a diet, which may put some people off. In captivity "feeder" fish and/or earthworms are usually offered. Wild-caught specimens take time to settle down, at first attempting to bite their handler and giving off a rather unpleasant stink from their anal glands.

See also Thamnophis (Garter Snakes)

Water Snake (genus Nerodia)

"Water snakes" here is taken to mean the fairly abundant North American species. The easiest to keep in captivity are the northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon, known in some older books as Natrix sipedon sipedon), which will apparently eat from the hand when acclimatised, and the red-bellied water snake, Nerodia erythrogaster. These snakes live primarily on fresh or canned fish. Indeed, the only drawbacks to water snakes are the lingering smell of fish around their feeding area and the watery faeces produced. The green- and brown water snakes, Nerodia cyclopion and Nerodia taxispilota, grow to large sizes and are perhaps less well-suited to captivity.

European water snakes, genus Natrix, are closely related but are egg layers instead of live bearers. They tend to be much less available, if at all, and their diet includes hard-to-provide items such as frogs.

Californian Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae)

The Californian kingsnake, aka "Cali king" in the trade, is a member of the genus Lampropeltis, a huge genus of mainly North American snakes. It is one of the most widely-bred snakes in captivity, and is commonly available in a variety of colours. Cali kings are usually good captives and feed well. Their only slight disadvantage is that they will willingly eat other snakes, so need to be housed separately.

Ratsnakes (genus Elaphe)

Technically the Corn Snake (see above) is also a ratsnake, but it is never referred to as such and anyway is the easiest of the lot in captivity. There are other members of its genus that also make attractive and fairly easy pets, mainly some of the American species. North American ones that can be recommended are E. bairdi (Baird's Rat Snake), E. guttata emoryi (Great Plains Ratsnake or Emory's Ratsnake, closely related to the Corn) and E. obsoleta quadrivittata (Yellow-Lined Rat Snake). Other North American ratsnakes are sometimes available, of which E. o. spiloides (Grey Rat Snake) might be a similarly good choice. The Texan Rat Snake, E. o. lindheimeri, has got rather an aggressive reputation. Most Asian ratsnakes are more difficult or at least temperamental, while the European ones are harder to obtain and tend to have more specialised requirements, but one that can be recommended is the Russian or Amur Ratsnake, Elaphe schrencki.

See Ratsnakes

Bullsnakes, Pine Snakes and Gopher Snakes (genus Pituophis)

This is a genus of medium-sized, heavy-bodied snakes that can reach up to 8ft in adult length, although in captivity 6ft is more common. They make an impressive show of rearing, squirming and hissing when disturbed, but are not dangerous and tame easily with a bit of handling. In appearance the snout is almost beaklike due to adaptation of the rostral scale and recession of the lower jaw for burrowing. Colours tend to be black, brown and white. These snakes are easy feeders as they live largely on larger rodents. In the trade you will probably encounter the Gopher Snake(Pituophis catenifer), the Bull Snake (P. c. sayi) and the Pine Snake (P. melanoleucus).

Rough Green Snake, Ophiophrys aestivus

This charming little species might make a good introduction to snakes for somebody who has kept lizards, since it too is an insectivore. Rough Green Snakes are very slender creatures not reaching great lengths. They can be kept in cages with branches and plants to climb on, and unlike most snakes listed on these pages will not usually destroy any living flora! Philippe de Vosjoli has written a useful booklet on their care. One thing to warn against is overhandling: also, given their thin size, security is an absolute must to prevent them from squeezing out. If you do want to keep it with other creatures, make sure that they are not likely to include it in their diet.

Western Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus)

Hognose snakes derive their name from the upturned end of the snouts, which they use as a spade to dig after prey (normally toads). There are two or three major hognose species, but the Western Hognose is recommended because it can be fed on a diet of rodents, unlike the others which seem to be incapable of taking anything other than toads. The only thing to be aware of with all hognoses is that they are equipped with a Duvernoy's gland, which may cause a slightly toxic reaction if one does bite you.

Royal Python (aka Ball Python) (Python regius) and Children's Python (

The royal python is a fairly placid snake that grows to no more than six foot and hence does not need a vast amount of living space. It is also long-lived in captivity. Its principal, and often distressing drawback, is a tendency to go on hunger strike, sometimes for months at a time. Should this happen, a variation of the diet is often necessary, even down to such things as the colour of the prey being fed. For that reason it is often not suggested as a beginner's snake. In fact in the wild this species may be seasonal in its feeding, ie a period of plenty followed by scarcity, and should not be overfed. If you do obtain a Royal, try to obtain as much information as you can, and if possible get in touch with other people who have experience with them. Captive bred specimens tend to adjust better than those taken from the wild.

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